Life is a rotten avocado sometimes, nice and green on the outside, pale and grey on the inside. That’s Cath’s own analogy. She loves avocadoes but is often disappointed when she slices them open. It’s the same with decisions; sometimes good choices turn bad in retrospect.
Cath’s dressed for a day in court. A violet dress, second hand blazer, her best shoes. It’s her usual Tuesday activity, though ‘activity’ is too light a description of her appointment with the Law. It’s business; a task of both necessity and reluctance akin to having a bad tooth pulled. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the man shift closer.
“Ever seen a forklift licence?” he asks.
“Ah…no, that’s pretty cool.” Cath politely looks at the proffered plastic then turns away and brings her Stephen King closer to her face.
Doesn’t he understand that a book or set of headphones means Don’t Talk To Me? It seems only women understand this sophisticated code. Cath had seen the man struggle up the aisle of the bus towards her and tucked her blazer in to make room. She’d shuffled closer to the window. An act of courtesy. She expects this sort of behaviour from others and is often disappointed.
Doors slam in her face, elevator doors shut too quickly, commuters don’t apologise when they tread on her feet. To make matters worse, her kindness is often misread by dum-dums like this one.
“I got this shiny card last month! I’m workin’ at Joe’s Storage.”
“Gonna change my life -”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m trying to read,” Cath says abruptly.
“Wouldn’t want to get in the way.” Cath blushes and turns her face away. A niggling feeling of guilt. Was she too abrupt? Rude, even? The letters are ants on the page, scurrying out of sight, indecipherable.
The bus halts and Cath, tucking her book under her arm, jumps off with a clumsy enthusiasm. Every Tuesday, on her day off, Cath walks past the pro-lifers. Rain or shine, the ragtag group is stationed outside the clinic doors. Almost always men, of course. If women do join the cluster, they are mostly past child-rearing age, at or past retirement. Waving placards and pink plastic foetuses. Murmuring prayers, fingering rosaries. Shouting out cheerful Good Mornings. Cath likes to stop and blow raspberries at them. It’s an impulse as unexplainable as the world we live in.
Self-righteous bozos, the lot of them. Sometimes she fantasises about pouring menstrual blood on them. Maybe she’d club them over the head with something. What do they use for terminations these days? Some kind of miniature vacuum. Well, that wouldn’t do as a weapon unless she aimed the nozzle at their hair or clothes. Last week, she’d seen a woman leave the clinic on the arm of a man with a bouquet of candy-coloured gerberas. Too cheerful, those flowers, Cath had thought.
“You’ll be okay,” the man said.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I’m sorry, Ruthie...”
The woman’s skin was pale and translucent as jellyfish. As if she really did thrive in the deep blue sea. Not many people knew that Cath was a feminist and, these days, celibate. It wasn’t that the sexual revolution had passed her by; in fact, it gave her the freedom to choose not to have sex at all. She just wasn’t into it. She preferred to read books in the golden sun, to go hiking in the mountains, to take long baths and drink hot cups of cocoa. A sensual being in her own way.
She respected others’ decision to have sex and hoped those others respected her decision not to. They often didn’t. What people knew about Cath was this: she worked as a shop assistant – bedding and manchester – and had two marmalade tabbies. Lived in a quiet block on a wide street in a cluttered flat. Went grocery shopping every Monday night and vacuumed every Sunday. Loved the sound of the hoover. Her pantry was full of jelly babies, mustard and pop-tarts.
“Hi Cath! The usual?” Harry smiles at her.
Cath’s pleased he remembers her coffee order. At last, she belongs in this great big city. Urbano is stuck-up and overpriced, but it’s where all the court people go, the lawyers and clerks, the worried friends and relatives. They sell Sydney’s most expensive jaffle. Mushrooms, cheese, eggs and shaved truffle. $33. No joke. That combo, let alone the price tag, makes Cath feel sick. Her city is absurd.
She presents her Hello Kitty Keep-Cup and silver coins, and flicks through the newspaper while she waits.
“Sandra!” the barrister yells.
Cath sees her favourite police prosecutor step up to collect her coffee and hopes they’re headed to the same case. When her own coffee is called, it’s the wrong one. Soy instead of skim. She hides her disappointment from Harry.
Cath rattles through security and catches the lift up to the third floor. Courtroom No. 12. It’s an assault case. Usually these are loud and lively. Cath is thrilled to see Sandra already there. Tall and handsome, the police prosecutor has burgundy hair and a prominent nose. Nothing gets past her. If pressed, Cath would admit to having a teeny-weeny crush.
“Excuse me, could you move up a little?” Cath asks a gaunt woman in the third row.
“I don’t think so.”
“This is my spot. You should have got here earlier.”
“Right,” Cath chuckles self-consciously and squeezes in the row in front. She hopes the woman’s spaghetti-neck breaks, the head rolling out the courtroom door. There are some familiar faces. A red-haired clerk, Jerry the quiet security guard, a journo or two. These are people she greets in the lobby and corridors, in the restrooms, by the water cooler. She wonders what they think of her. Do they wonder what brings her here?
As a little girl Cath had loved Judge Judy and had fantasies of being a judge herself. Sitting up high with a gavel, pronouncing people guilty or not. God-like, benevolent. But life is a gnarly beast and, in the end, Cath dropped out of Law School to look after her mother. Parkinson’s. Her law books now laid collecting dust under the bed, along with Caring for the Dying, Palliative Care Principles, and Looking after the Frail and Elderly. Her mum was forty-three when she died, the same age Cath is now. The judge has a pleasantly lined face underneath her wig. Like Yoda. Or someone else very wise, Cath thinks. This combined with the wood panelling creates the impression that something weighty or essential is being decided here. Less majestic surrounds would not do. Cath wonders if the good feeling she gets from sitting in the courtroom is like the feeling some people get in cathedrals.
Architectural wonders of power and proclamation, shelter from the cold and wet. She feels at peace. Part of something larger. Not god or the universe, but the Criminal Justice System.
“Were there drugs at this function?” Sandra asks.
“Objection Your Honour,” the defence interjects.
“I can’t see the relevance of that question.”
Cath glances around the room. There are some young people taking notes in the back row. Law students?
“Were you friends previously?”
“No. We met that night,” says the victim.
“Had you heard his name before?”
“Yes, possibly. He was fairly well known in the fashion industry.”
Cath studies the woman’s delicate face, the fine lines around her eyes. She’s wearing a linen shift with a silver necklace, the turquoise pendant jiggling with her nervous body.
“How did he respond to you moving away?” asks the prosecutor.
“He followed me to the loos, and was waiting outside when I came out.”
“What did he do then?” “He grabbed my arm and tried to lead me outside. I pushed him away and he fell into the potted palm.”
There are titters in the court room. Serves the slimeball right.
Years ago Cath was sitting in a near-empty cinema, in the back row, watching Erin Brockovich scan files at the water board, baby on her hip. No way was the company going to get away with poisoning the town’s water. No effing way. Cath was crunching down on a choc-top, honeycomb, her favourite, happy on her own, as usual. She loved the musty velvet seats, the dark, kicking her shoes off. She rummaged in her bag for her lip gloss – chaffed lips, always but came up instead with her eyeliner.
A greasy young man sitting in her row moved closer, and placed his hand on her knee. She started.
“You look like Julia Roberts,” he breathed.
“Get your filthy hands off me.”
“Oh come on, don’t be like that.”
“I said don’t.”
“Bit up-tight, aren’t you?”
She stood up and slapped his hand away. Moving to the front of the cinema, she chose a seat beside the only other woman.
Erin Brockovich was a kick-arse feminist taking down big business. Why would a misogynist buy tickets to see that? The man approached again and, this time, when he reached for her knee, Cath stabbed him, hard, in the hand with her eyeliner. She hit an artery and the blood bloomed like a rose, spreading its tendrils of red over his denim jacket, his pants, the seat, his shoes.
The woman beside Cath screamed and someone called security. Kids watching Chicken Run in the next cinema could hear him shouting, “You fucking bitch! You fucking psycho!” over and over again, until the ambos arrived and administrated something sharp and soothing. The court was sympathetic in Cath’s case – she only meant to warn him, how could she know her eyeliner would do such damage? – but in the end decided that her reaction was out of proportion to the threat. She was unable to establish self defence. The man’s hand was ruined. He would never again be able to mow lawns or prune trees. Cath got a suspended sentence. She never did see the end of Erin Brockovich.
The court adjourns and Cath catches the lift up to the top floor café. She chooses a window seat to look out at the main drag below. Life is going on uninterrupted – people, cars, buildings, everything in miniature. Like you could scoop it all up and stash it in your handbag. Cath likes little things, collects them. Ceramic cats and porcelain ballerinas. Blown glass figurines. Precious and portable, these are things to be handled and held; the slender leg, the ballet slipper, the tutu. She plucks her ceramic Siamese cat, wrapped in tissue, from her handbag and turns it to face the cup and saucer.
“Drink up,” she whispers.
It’s quiet, the café empty at this hour, too quiet. As if the world has ended and no one told her. What will she do? Go into hiding in the city’s stormwater drains. But first, she’d break into the homes of the wealthy just to see how they lived. What did they keep in the fridge? Caviar. Blue cheese. Saucisson. What about in their medicine cabinets? Perhaps they suffered from the same ailments she does. Athlete’s foot and insomnia? It was possible.
She’d go to the Natural History Museum and look at the relics, the butterflies and dinosaur bones, the stuffed birds, hammerstones and bronze axes, the remains of her civilisation. They’d be no queues or loud school groups. They’d be no one. Afterwards, she’d break into the Frank’s, that swish bar she walked past on her way here, and drink champagne out of the bottle. Out of all the bottles. She’d tuck one or two under her arm and run a bath for herself at the hotel upstairs. Musk candles, bubbles and unrestrained farts. An orchestra of farty-farts and running taps.
Cath’s reverie is broken by the ding of the elevator. The world hasn’t ended, not yet anyway. When she slides back into her seat, in front of Ms Spaghetti Neck, the court is about to resume. Sandra is speaking softly to a new witness, a Ms Ream, a plain woman with gorgeous black curls, before murmuring something to the defence.
“Ms Ream, you were replenishing the drinks that night, is that right?” Sandra asks.
“Yes. My job was to carry drinks from the bar to the tables in the Canary Room.”
“Did you have to walk past the toilets to get to the Canary Room?”
“Did you see the defendant and Ms Tran together?”
“Yes. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement and turned towards the toilets. I saw the defendant grab Ms Tran’s arm and drag her down.”
“What happened then?”
“I put the drinks tray down on the registration desk and called security.”
“Did either the defendant or Ms Tran see you?”
Cath’s mind wanders easily these days; shards of anger followed by snow drifts, thoughts buried by thoughts buried by thoughts. When she was a teenager, the team leader at Maccas had stalked her. Skinny, square-chin, baloney breath, Mark was scary because he was ten years older. He would say things like “I dreamt about you last night, Cathy, how do you like that?” or “Want a lift home, sweetie?” He would watch her mop the floors, slip strange messages in her locker, and breathe audibly around her. Once he followed her home in his Sedan. Cath told her mum and her mum said, “You should be more careful. Remember what happened to Gladys.” Her auntie had been raped.
Having read Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan, Cath knew her mum, for all her good intentions, was misguided. Cath had her first abortion at 19 and she was okay with it. She loved the boy but they were both too young…
“Not guilty,” the judge pronounces.
A silence descends in the courtroom and the defendant cracks a smile; Ms Tran slumps in her seat, thumbing her turquoise pendant, eyes wide. The case is over, the defendant off scot-free. Cath looks at Ms Tran and tries to communicate, telepathically, that she’s sorry the world is so cruel. She dips her hand into her handbag and strokes the Siamese cat’s smooth neck.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, my little darling,” she murmurs.
On her way home, Cath passes the pro-lifers again. She spots some new faces among them, which makes her slow down and finally stop. Turning to face the protestors, Cath bites the head off a red jelly baby. Before she knows what she’s doing, her hand is in the bag of lollies and she is showering the protestors. Red and blue babies. Green and yellow. Black and orange.
“I eat babies for breakfast,” she shouts.
“What are you gonna do?”
The lollies are fireworks against the protestors’ sepia tones.
“This is life hurtling towards you. Do you even know what that is, life, living? Do you?”
Her hair is shielding her face, having come loose, and her violet dress has some darker patches now, sweat, fear, anger. She’s a Jack in a Box, unstoppable. Even as a police officer tries to drag her away, struggling, “Fuck off, fuck off…” Cath says under her breath, again and again. She twists her head back, grinning at the protestors, red jelly stuck in her teeth.